Sunday, October 25, 2009

Blog follies, Parabasis division

The super-hot, P.C.-witch-huntin' Isaac Butler has an amusing post up on his blog about theatres and young audiences, that his web posse has been doing back-flips over. And why shouldn't they? Butler is expert at surfing the assumptions of his generation and class, and here he serves up an irresistible piece of liberal-arts-college Gen-Y bait. He calls the post a "no-brainer" (and it is pretty stupid), yet within it he claims to elegantly solve the problems theatres face in reaching young audiences.

To land this desired demographic, Butler helpfully explains, a theatre merely has to:

(1) Do work they want to see.

(2) Endeavor to do it well

(3) Offer it at a price point they will find reasonable

Yes. Anyone paged Santa Claus yet about this? Anyone? Probably not, because the Butler posse has been too busy congratulating themselves (and him) on the manner in which he's so succinctly rendered their wish list. But the idea that there are rather large problems with the plan (such as that "price point they will find reasonable") in the unfortunate land called "reality" doesn't seem to enter anyone's heads. Indeed, none of Butler's groupies bother at all with the sticky question of how a theatre can make ends meet doing shows for an audience that can't afford theatre.

You see, Isaac's three-point plan really requires a fourth point. Something like:

4) Shake down your donors, because your ticket revenue is about to be cut in half.


4) Fire half your staff, because your ticket revenue, etc.

You can imagine other #4's, of course; the point is that Butler's post is intellectually dishonest (as he usually is) without a #4. Perhaps half-aware of this gap, Butler makes a vague gesture toward the mild success of the musical Coraline, which extended two whole weeks. Uh-huh. Okay, everybody start doing cultish, vaguely-gay musicals about kids (like MilkMilkLemonade, perhaps?).

To be fair, Butler's got half a point here in that it's probably pointless for a theatre to tweet about Arthur Miller (or August Wilson) to his self-absorbed generation; twenty-somethings don't show up for anything unless it's all about them. Indeed, they can get pretty pissy when they realize that actually, older folks aren't really that interested in their mediocre output - as you can probably tell as Butler's post morphs into a rant:

Do you actually want younger audiences, or do you just want their money? [What money??] or Would your theater company be able to sustain itself on a younger audience base? [No, obviously.] And if not, are you just fucked? Are you just riding it out for as long as possible knowing it's not going to work out in the long run?

I'm sick of this shit. The answers aren't that hard, they're only hard because the answers are things that people don't really want to do, so they're trying to find ways to cheat. Well, I'm sorry, you can't cheat. It doesn't work that way.

And if you don't want to do that, that's okay. If you don't want to do that kind of work, that's okay. Just stop claiming you want younger audiences. You don't want them. You feel entitled to them.

I have to give entitlement-queen Butler points for actually reversing his own obvious M.O. and laying it at the feet of his "foes"; bravo! But what Butler seems to have never quite perceived is that most theatres are involved in a delicate balancing act: how to look like they're attracting young audiences - because older audiences want to believe that they are - while actually hanging on to that older demographic, which pays the bills? I'm afraid that's not a no-brainer; but if he figures it out, then he'll have something to post about.

Or, Butler might always offer his fans the following flip-side "no brainer" on how to get theatres to do more Gen-Y-centered fare, and sustain the art form long-term:

1) Get a better job;

2) Endeavor to do it well;

3) Spend your hard-earned salary on tickets to the theatre.


  1. You have a point, but who could possible criticize the programs that are in place to bring young people in--the Huntington's pay-your-age nights and discounted subscriptions for those under 25 (and under 35!); the ART extending their student pass offer to recent graduates, and (as this discussion can be extended to classical music) the BSO's $20 tickets for the under forty crowd. These are great programs, it's important to bring in young people and as non-profits it probably ranks high on their lists of objectives--probably just a few bullets under staying afloat. I mean 35 and 40 isn't really that young. Those ages say something about the problem themselves.

    Sure they can't give the tickets away, but they can try. I would push to bring young folks in to fill empty seats weeknights.

    With rent, student debt, a poorly paid job or no job; kids can't really afford much of the arts scene, and what's the point of spending all this time on twitter and facebook if you're not going to make it fiscally accessible?

    It's necessary for cultural institutions to think in the long-term, because some do run the risk of the majority of their patronage dying and a 'hook 'em while they're young' approach isn't necessarily a bad idea--you know, like the cigarette companies. Some of the kids getting $15 student rush tickets or 20-something discounts may be writing checks for $3000 someday. (I do think kids should leave the blackberries at home and if you're going to Symphony Hall, you really shouldn't show up in jeans and a sweatshirt.)

    There does seem to be a transition age that I haven't yet figured (it seems to depend on gender and whether or not you're married) where people do start attending more concerts and plays, than they did when young. Maybe middle age when the kids have grown up a bit and you're too old to sit around bars? or maybe when some women start to look like spinsters they start to act like them too. I don't know, but there seems to be a trend. I'm being a little sarcastic here, but I'd be interested to hear your thoughts on arts demographics.

    You've been around long enough and your reviews are frequent and good enough that you're getting free tickets (I assume)--would you be able to see a fraction of what you do if you didn't and if you were a kid again?

    I'm 24 and recently started a Boston arts blog (, though I don't necessarily target it towards to my peers, but I do try and make note of freebies and discounts where applicable. I'll say that I don't drop a dime at bars and the like in order to sustain my arts habit.

    This is my first post to your blog (with a link to my site) and I'm really hoping I'm not placing myself on your bad side.

  2. Honey, as long as you don't gratuitously insult or threaten me, you're not on my bad side.

    The thing is, though, that I'm not arguing against discounts for students and twenty-somethings. The point is that those discounts are being subsidized by charitable giving, or higher prices for the older demographic.

    I'm also troubled by the implicit ageism of that post from Butler - and by the implicit ageism of most of his writing, in fact; it's his own obvious bigotry, which he's completely blind to. Of course it's understandable that a young person would want to see more of his or her own generation's work on stage, but frankly, at least in Boston, there's plenty of work by young people on our stages; indeed, it's the classics that are currently being under-served.

    And beneath the surface of his post lurks an obvious assumption that young people would not, and even should not, be interested in the work of their elders, or of the past in general; there's no craft to learn, no depth of experience to be explored and matched. There is only the ongoing quest to make theatre more like a network of texts from your hot ethnic friends, or something like that.

    As for when people begin to grow up culturally - an interesting question! I'm an unusual case, because I grew up in a household where I was constantly exposed to the fine arts. Still, in my teens and college years, I was listening to the Clash, the Cars and Elvis Costello! It's not as if one set of tastes was suddenly overturned by another; in my twenties I was dancing around to the Pet Shop Boys (and still do when nobody's around). But gradually, a taste for high culture began to surface, or re-surface. Whether it ever would have re-appeared without that exposure in my youth is an open question. This may explain why so many boomers cling to the admittedly-good pop culture of groups like Pink Floyd and U2 rather than really embracing the deeper pleasures of serious music; I don't know. I do know that if we're going to sustain our high culture, we will have to bring back funding for sustained arts education at an early age.

    And no, I couldn't afford seeing five or six shows a week unless I were getting free tickets. My guess is that if you keep writing at a sustained level for a considerable period of time (and this is where most local blogs have faltered), venues will be open to ticket requests from you, too. (Just don't ask Ryan Landry!)